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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Literary Quality of his Prose

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Rhetoric, Writing on June 11, 2014 at 8:45 am

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s writings are known for their literary qualities.  The Class Poet at Harvard, the son of a famous poet, and a lifelong devotee of Emerson, Holmes often rendered his judicial writings in poetic prose.  Consider the following lines from Gitlow v. New York, which I have reformulated as a poem:

 

                 Gitlow v. New York[i]

                 A Poem[ii] (1925)

Every idea

is an incitement.

It offers itself for belief

and if believed

it is acted on

unless some other belief

outweighs it

or some failure of energy

stifles the movement

at its birth.

The only difference

between the expression

of an opinion and an incitement

in the narrower sense

is the speaker’s enthusiasm

for the result.

Eloquence may set fire

to reason.

But whatever may be thought

of the redundant discourse

before us

it had no chance of starting

a present conflagration.

 

The plain, raw idioms and variable feet in these lines resemble those characteristically employed by Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Holmes’s language here is similar in tone and rhythm to Williams’s in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which was published just two years before this dissent. Holmes’s alliterative use of the letter “n” emphasizes mobility, momentum, and ignition: “incitement,” “energy,” “movement,” “incitement,” “enthusiasm,” “conflagration.” These nouns suggest provocation, stimulus, instigation; they are tied to ideas themselves, as in the line “every idea is an incitement,” hence the correspondingly alliterative “n” sounds in the words “expression” and “reason.” The metrical regularity of “Every,” “offers it…,” “for belief,” “failure of,” “energy,” “stifles the,” “at its birth,” “difference,” “narrower,” “Eloquence,” and “had no chance” accents the activity associated with thinking insofar as these dactylic words and phrases pertain to ideas or beliefs. Holmes follows a series of dactyls with spondaic feet just as he describes the possibility of combustion: “Eloquence [stress / slack / slack] may set fire [stress / stress / stress / slack] to reason [stress / stress / slack].” It is as though he wishes to create the sense of building pressure and then of sudden release or combustion. Two unstressed lines abruptly interrupt the heightened tension; the first appears with the transitional conjunction “But,” which signals a change in the tone. Holmes appears to reverse the intensity and calm his diction as he assures us that the “redundant discourse,” a phrase made cacophonous by the alliterative “d” and “s” sounds, has “no chance of starting a present conflagration.” A sudden move to iambic feet and hence to a lightened tone rounds out these lines and suggests that Holmes has smothered or extinguished whatever energy had been building with the three-syllable feet. These lines have become some of the most famous in American constitutional history most likely because of their memorable qualities, which contributed to the eventual vindication of the dissent.

Be that as it may, feet and meter are basic to English speech and writing and may be displayed in many other legal writings by less able judges and justices. It would be difficult to prove that Holmes deliberately set out to invest these lines with literary features, at least those pertaining to alliteration and feet. Holmes no doubt had an ear for language and probably intended to employ alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme in his writings, but how far does his intent extend?  Does the scanning exercise above give Holmes too much credit and attribute to his writings undeserved praise?  There is no empirical way to answer this question, but the speculation is, I think, worth the time.

 

[i] Gitlow v. N.Y., 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

 

[ii] My addition.

 

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